Hunting and Gathering

The Challenges of Bringing Food to the House.

If the whole diet and exercise thing comes crashing down in flames, it will be because I can’t get a grip on grocery shopping. For awhile I lived in Tuscany, and shopping for food in Italy was a real challenge. There were a few places that were like little grocery stores, but mostly you had to stop at market stalls in the street or at the butchers, the cheese shop, the bakery  to get what you needed. I didn’t have a car, and rarely enough money for grocery and taxi ride both, so I could only buy stuff that I could carry home in my arms, up the hill out of the city.

English isn’t widely spoken in Italy and though I had a little German and a lot of French, I found it very difficult to translate. So each morning, I would figure what was needed for the day and I would make a list. Then I would look up the translations for the foods I needed and write them next to their counterparts on the list. Sometimes I would write out the pronunciation key too. If I really got stuck I could point to the word on the list.  Bringing home the food was a lot of work and it took hours.

In 1972, when we moved from suburban Connecticut (with its bright and modern supermarkets) to a mill village in the north of England, my mother was horrified at the shopping dilemma. The nearest town with any sort of large market was Huddersfield. It was only about ten miles away, but there were innumerable obstacles. The local shops were merely out the door and 100 feet up Peel Street. It was just the everyday chore of having to go out for bread and vegetables and a bit of meat and chocolate– none of which were in the same shop, of course.

We’ve recreated this situation in this country to an extent and made a trendy entertainment of shopping in specialty stores and farmer’s markets. I can hardly stand it. Maybe it’s the echo of my experience in Europe, but more likely it’s the sense of self-consciousness that drapes over me like a cloak. I hate to ask for things. I don’t want to be helped. All the other shoppers seem so weirdly pleased with themselves about being there.  We will go in occasionally to buy bread. Our friend is the baker and the bread is truly worthwhile, but I hate going to get it.

There are ethnic markets of course, but not for routine shopping. There is a small local chain of upscale groceries called “Dorothy Lane Market,” whose ethnicity is rich and white. I went there the other night for a wine and cheese sampling with my friend Rita. It was divine. They offer to help you there, but you can be utterly anonymous too. Just don’t forget your wallet, and I hope it’s fat if you’re shopping there much. There’s a Trader Joe’s too, but it seems kind of flat after DLM.

But the regular routine staples– the milk and oranges and butter and eggs and cereal, that generally comes from a grocery store here. My husband’s parents ran a neighborhood grocery in L.A.and in between stints at railroads, my husband worked at numerous grocery stores. I think he clocked in at about 50 Ralph’s in Southern California. When we still lived in Montana, people would stop him in the store and ask for help years after he’d stopped working there.

He is a great shopper of sales. He fiddles with coupons, but finally doesn’t use them for anything except tormenting me. If I should happen to buy something different or shampoo or something he will invariably  say “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to buy that? I have a coupon for it at home.”  Always. But his style of shopping is entirely different from mine. He’s the man at the checkout with 16 cans of green beans and four cases of soda pop, a tower of canned tuna fish, a big box of ramen and three bags of cat food balanced over the top of the cart. He always walks back to the back of the store just before we leave, to get the milk. If he buys fresh produce it’s one or more of these three things: lettuce, onions or bananas.

Then he wrestles with the self check-out. Those machines, they’ve got it in for Elmer. They’re holding a grudge.

There’s nothing particularly odious about grocery shopping here, it’s just so boring. I try hard to adhere to the advice of diet and money gurus to stay out of the middle of the store and just shop along the edges, as the edges are where they keep the fresh food. If money weren’t a consideration, the shopping would be easier. (Hell, if money weren’t a consideration, I’d have a personal chef and they could do the shopping.) But it is, so I’m on the lookout for less-expensive proteins to build a meal around. Before I was so food conscious, this was a bit easier. Kielbasa and noodles are a tasty and inexpensive supper, but really, you know, not all that healthy. Prowling the aisles, I try to find stuff that will help me continue on the right path, and still provide sustenance for the rest of the family.

On good days the cart is brimming with the potential of great meals ahead: tortillas and tilapia, ginger and Bok choy, cilantro, raw shrimp, peppers, chicken, some lean beef, brown cow yogurt, granola, fruit, spinach, avocado, oranges. But then there’s the check-out ahead and hauling it all out to the car and then carrying all the bags up to the house and finding some place to put everything and chucking out all the things that have wilted and rotted and gotten covered in gray fuzz in the refrigerator. The wastefulness of it all really bothers me. I resolve to do better, and use up the ingredients I’d bought in preparing wonderful meals.

But the days go by. We go out to eat. We have a “fend” night, where everyone is on their own to feed themselves. Things age, they wilt, the bloom goes off. And suddenly there you are with nothing in the house to eat again and it’s time to go grocery shopping.  Planning would help, of course. If we could only stick to the plan. Somehow, there’s got to be a better way.

Target today 70  Steps 611

Yogurt with granola. Slice of birthday cake. Six crackers with Monterey Jack cheese. Small slice of pizza. One chicken nugget. 

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